Last week I watched Spotlight, the film about the Boston Globe‘s exposure of priests’ sexual abuse of children, and then I watched it again. There are many reasons for my fascination with this film. I almost always root for the underdog, and in this story the underdog wins. Moreover as a former Catholic (for a period of time) and as part-Irish, I relish an inside glimpse of the machinations of the all-male Church hierarchy and the all-male Irish power structure that supported it in Boston.
Having dealt with child sexual abuse on an almost daily basis while I was teaching women’s studies, I also have a very personal and emotionally-charged relationship to the subject. I was pleased that victims of child sexual abuse were able—after great struggle—to get a hearing. But this I already knew.
What made me watch the film a second time and what keeps it swirling around in my mind is that I am struggling to understand the psycho-sexual dynamics of the priesthood that make the abuse of children by priests not only a common occurrence, but also a fact that is still being covered up.
One line from the film stuck in my mind. In a telephone interview, psychologist and former priest Richard Sipe said that the root of the sexual abuse cover-up is priestly celibacy, which because it is not widely practiced, creates a climate of fear, guilt, and duplicity in the hierarchy of the Church. In “An Interview with Richard Sipe,” Sipe states that his research reveals that at any one time, only about 50% of priests are actually practicing celibacy.
If we accept this statistic, we can imagine that far (?) more than 50% of priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes have not been celibate at some time during their priesthood! Sipe found that only 6% of priests are having sex with children. Many others are having sex with other adults, both male and female, in long-term or short-term relationships. In addition, a large number of priests are not having sex with other people, but are masturbating, and many of them are using pornography.
In the interview, Sipe does not indicate what proportion of the priests are having sex with other adults and what percentage are masturbating. But as Sipe explains, because the Church considers masturbation to be a violation of celibacy, even those who are “only” masturbating are engaging in sinful behavior that violates a central vow of the priesthood. Every priest who is engaging in sexual behavior of any kind is expected to “confess” his sin. Since almost every priest violates the vow of celibacy at some time during his priesthood, it would make no sense to kick a priest out of the priesthood for this sin. Thus, violations of the vow of celibacy are routinely “forgiven” by confessors. At the same time, nothing is ever said about the fact that one out of every two priests, a large number of bishops and cardinals, and maybe even the pope himself, are deceiving the faithful about their celibacy.
Late one night at a party after one or two too many scotches, a Jesuit priest revealed to me that many of his colleagues were having sex with divorced women who came to them for counseling. (Divorce is still considered a sin by the Church.) These priests considered themselves to be celibate if they went as far as penetration, but withdrew before orgasm. These men might even bring the women to orgasm and leave them begging for more, while holding back from “taking pleasure” themselves. He added that, in their twisted minds, they considered themselves to be more “holy” than the women with whom they were having sex, congratulating themselves for their “self-restraint.”
According to Sipe, it is this kind of sick culture of deception and self-deception, lying and cover-up, that led and continues to lead the Church hierarchy to carry on as usual, forgiving priests for their sexual sins–even when confronted with priests who have sex with children. Imagine yourself as a priest who has been forgiven of sexual acts you and your Church consider to be sinful. Wouldn’t your tendency be to forgive a fellow sinner? To expose one group of priests for (heinous) sexual sins, threatens to expose the (less heinous) sexual sins of almost every other priest, bishop, cardinal, and pope. To identify with child victims opens the door to identifying with adult victims (female and male) of priestly sexual activity as well.
A web of deception, laced with guilt and fear, and requiring cover-up, allows sexually active priests to maintain the lie that they are celibate and holier than the rest of us because of their celibacy. A whole house of cards is falling, and this is exactly what the Church was afraid would happen.
Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Early Bird Special until February 15. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ. Carol speaks in depth about the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in an illustrated interview with Kaalii Cargill. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.
A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published by Far Press in the spring of 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.
Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in June 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.